This is the question that the Vancouver Park Board asked on Saturday, July 26, 2014, with continuing public input on Monday, July 28.
The meeting launched with the presentation of a fact finding report in the morning, followed by ample time for Vancouver Aquarium staff to present their case. All other speakers were allotted three minutes only to speak. Several speakers who had signed up expressed their concern that their already short time allotment of five minutes was cut to a mere three minutes, forcing people to cut or rush through their prepared statements. There was no opportunity for a scientist who opposed keeping cetaceans in captivity to speak, and as one speaker stated, “no one is going to fly out for only three minutes.” However, the Park Commissioners appeared to have conducted thorough research into the issues and posed questions to the Aquarium staff that included questions about the stress that captive cetaceans experience and the deaths of some of the facility’s belugas.
The question posed at the meeting was whether the Vancouver Aquarium should add to the numbers of whales and dolphins they hold captive in their facility or have on loan to Sea World and Georgia Aquarium.
Dr. Joseph Gaydos presented his report on the aquarium’s operations around captive cetaceans that the park board engaged to “provide a non-biased, third party review” of the aquarium’s captive cetacean program and how it compares to comparable aquariums. Staff from the Vancouver Aquarium followed with their position on captive cetaceans. It was after three p.m. when the public was given an opportunity to speak.
The overall tone of Dr. Gaydos’ presentation and the report was favourable for the Vancouver Aquarium’s position. Dr. Gaydos described the care that the Vancouver Aquarium provides for animals as “exceptional” and stated that no animals are acquired from the wild except in the case of injured animals.
However, Dr. Gaydos noted that several jurisdictions, including South Carolina and Hawaii, Cyprus, Chile, Slovenia, and India prohibit the display of cetaceans. India went as far as declaring that cetaceans are “non-human persons” who have the right not to be held in captivity. The audience clapped enthusiastically in response. He also identified three aquariums that do not have captive cetaceans that attract more annual visitors than the Vancouver aquarium. Monterey Bay Aquarium receives 1.9 million visitors per year, Aquarium of the Pacific receives 1.5 million, and New England Bay Aquarium receives 1.3 million.
Vancouver Aquarium staff, including Dr. John Nightingale responded to questions from the Park Commissioners. He espoused the need for captive animals for research programs and claimed that their captivity actually benefited whales in the wild because of the research opportunities they provide. The Aquarium also claimed that the captive animals provide invaluable education opportunities for children ‘who would otherwise never see any of these animals.’
Speakers, who included local scientists, conservation groups, concerned citizens, and a couple of very dedicated children, provided as much input as they could during their hastily shortened speeches. Liberation BC and other speakers questioned the acquisition of dolphins, including the Aquarium’s two Pacific white-sided dolphins, Helen and Hana, from Japan, a country where deadly dolphin drive hunts are conducted annually. We also questioned the validity of claims that keeping whales captive for research is justified when scientist such as Dr. Lori Marino have argued that it is unethical to keep intelligent animals like cetaceans captive, and that there is no compelling evidence to support captivity for the sake of educating the public. Some members of the public expressed support for the aquarium and referred to childhood memories of awe inspiring visits to the facility. Some took the position that captive whales allowed much needed research to be conducted and that children learned from seeing the whales in their small pools.
Protesters outside the aquarium commented on their concerns and even called for Dr. John Nightingale to resign.
As the presentations from the Vancouver Park Board continued until after three p.m., there was less than two hours for speakers before the meeting ended at 5 p.m. With over 130 speakers signed up to speak, the meeting was extended to Monday July 28, at 6 pm at 2099 Beach Avenue.